Doctor, when is your next vacation?

Life is short. We always hear that phrase but really don’t know what it truly means. What I mean is that life doesn’t feel short; we complain of our days being too long, or weeks too busy and dragged out. The only thing that feels too short in my life are weekends. There comes a point in life where I think you figure out what it means, you look back and seeing your 20s flew by. Life is short, and we need to live it to the fullest.

When you’re a kid, a teen and even in your 20s, you feel like you have your whole life ahead of you. In the last year, I have seen some fellow physicians suddenly pass away; I have seen colleagues be diagnosed with different forms of cancer way too young, where arguably any age is too young. It brought me to the question: How can we as physicians do our jobs well and also have some time for ourselves? Sometimes it feels like taking care of ourselves makes us a bad doctor because we should always be available for our patients all the time.

When I first finished residency, a senior physician said to me, after I had mentioned about how excited I was about getting a good number of vacation weeks, “Well, you won’t use all of the vacation you know, because you should be aware that people will need to cover for you and your patients need you.”

This was very interesting to me: Is this how certain people view vacation time? At that time I couldn’t understand what they meant, but as I have completed my first year out of residency, I understand the view, at least to some degree. When you have your “own” patients especially in a clinic, there is a sense of guilt when you are considered vacation; it may not be heavy, but it definitely lingers around maybe convincing you to take a slightly shorter amount of time off than you planned.

What I am seeing around me at the hospital is that we are so often on the go, meeting to meeting, patient to patient, being pressured to do more, see more and get more RVUs, that it is easy to lose sight of one of the most precious things — the infamous “work-life balance.” If I took a poll, I would say probably one or two physicians around me feel like they have good work-life balance. It is like Bigfoot: Some people say they have seen it, but does it really exist?

I look around at a few of my colleagues who I had done residency with or who graduated ahead of me, and I see them drowning in work and responsibilities. I am afraid for them. It is so easy to keep working, and so hard to take a break and focus just on yourself even if it’s for a weekend where you don’t pick up extra shifts and just sleep in to 9 a.m.

When I go on a vacation, the last two days are spent dreading how much paperwork will be waiting for me when I get back, or if something happened to any of my patients while I was away. I guess it’s the nature of the job, but by no means is it healthy. I have had people become upset with me for taking a few days off and traveling because I was not in clinic and not available. I understand where they come from; nobody wants to be without their doctor for any number of days especially if they need them. There is sometimes no winning; I often feel a bit guilt-ridden when I am off. With so much attention on physician burnout and wellness, I think it is important to really think about how important balance is in life.

I invite you to ask yourself: Do you have good work-life balance?

If the answer is yes, then that’s amazing: I challenge you to help a colleague who hasn’t really found it yet, figure it out. It is easier for some more than others; life is too short to put it off.

I think with technology more readily available, work comes with us everywhere. Don’t check your email on a vacation; don’t open your message center on the weekend of course unless something urgent is pending.

Focus on your own well-being. I am still learning how to actually accomplish staying on vacation while on vacation.

We counsel our patients on not working too much, finding hobbies, exercising, and relaxing, but shouldn’t we do the same?

I am an active person: I play soccer, go to the gym, paint, and play the saxophone, but it is easy to lose all of this given the nature of our careers. A dear friend of mine and I went to a gym class to try out a new place, and despite him being a few years out of residency, he said he was too busy with work to join the gym and exercise, he will do it later. Let me tell you: I am truly worried about how easy it is to fall into this cycle.

I am writing this to bring attention to the importance of taking care of yourself so you can be healthy: physically and mentally and be there fully for your patients when you are working.

Make a list of something you’d like to do every week, every month and a list of things to accomplish in the year. Pick up a new hobby, cook, dance, travel, just sleep in or all of the above. Most importantly, write it down and follow through. Remind yourself that life is short.

We tell ourselves things will get better later, and we will take it easier, but why not try it now?

To fellow colleagues: Please, I urge you to take care of yourself. You are important; your health is important. There is no time like the present to make the change.

If you see someone around you struggling, give them a hand. We are in a tough field; there is always more work to be done, I have never gone home after a day of work feeling like I finished everything for the day. If I waited for that feeling, I am sure I would never get to leave. I can tell you I often stay at work for long hours going the extra mile for patients by making phone calls, and helping arrange appointments, and sometimes just checking in on someone, but at what cost? There is a balance, and I am still working to find it too. Wisdom from others always seems like a healthy first step. I am learning it is just as important to take care of yourself and be there for your family as it is to take care of your patients, and in turn, you are more capable of being a better doctor.

I wonder, and ask the question to everyone who reads this article, when is your next vacation? I hope it is coming up sometime very soon.

Jasmine Toor is an internal medicine physician.

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